The Logic of Fire, The Bear Hunt




[A longer excerpt, which includes this one, was published in CONFRONTATION in 1994]

As they walked the earth rose; they were climbing low hills maybe 500 feet high. As they climbed, other trees interspersed themselves between the oaks and the going was more mixed, with thickets here and clear spaces there. More slowly now the trackers kept after the bear who did not make off to a thicket. Finally they reached an open ridge. The land fell away before them, dropping he thought, in a few kilometers to below the level of the bailey. To the right he could see the river come out from a cut in the crest and then flow onto the plain. The plain was covered with forest, which swelled and changed texture with the hills, with occasional clearings. Smoke rose here and there, the sign of man. The western edge of the plain was lost in a ribbon of haze below the gold of the sun setting in broken clouds. He imagined the ocean might be in the haze, he even thought he smelled it. But why should he suppose the ocean lay to the west?

The party turned back and walked briskly and at first without stealth to the clearing where the pig carcass lay. As they approached it they returned to still walking, circled around to the fallen oak, and slipped up high branches, which overlooked the clearing at a distance, Stretch always following what the others did.

They waited wedged or crouching there in the fading twilight until they could no longer clearly make out the carcass of the pig. The ravens made off. The evening sounds of the forest were waxing. Then they climbed down and made for another clearing about fifty yards away. There they waited silently as the sky shifted from gray orange to black. Owls hooted from the tops of the oaks and two or three times a harsh, wailing cry Stretch could not name came out of the dark. At last, as they were rising, they heard the sound of the breaking of a dead stick from the direction that the carcass lay. Could the bear have come back? A moment afterward, listening with strained ears, they heard a brushing sound as against the passage of a large animal. The leaders spoke quietly in the darkness, then broke silence and began to gather wood for a fire. It was hard to find dry wood, and under the shelter of a big oak Stretch was relieved to see one of the others draw flame by twisting a stick with a bow like an Indian in a cowboy movie. They sat by the fire and ate jerky and the others chatted. The lad had a flute and they used a log for a drum to sing songs, which Stretch joined wordlessly. They kept the fire full all night and Stretch was wakened for his turn to watch.

As early as half light they returned to the clearing. The men each slipped for a moment a little further into the brush to piss. Gebrelis came with Stretch and insisted that he face south, recite certain syllables, and throw earth over the moisture. Now the carcass was mostly eaten, a messy meal with shreds of bone and skin scattered about. Rot mixed with the smell of blood and the other scent he thought must be the bear itself. Three ravens were already neatening up the place. Stretch could see that the tracks were so fresh in the bending, wet grass that the bear must have left just before light.

They took up the track immediately, again Stretch, the lad and another man at the center while Gebrelis and the fourth man slipped through the woods on the wings communicating by bird calls. For some distance they padded over a soft, yielding carpet of moss and last years moist, dark leaves, and the footprints were quite easily seen even in the somber half light that always prevailed under this hefty, leafy, canopy no matter how bright the sky world above them. The woods had quieted after the dawn song, and each body was tight to every little noise. Some of the ravens had come with them; sometimes they called in the tree tops, and sometimes he could hear them fly down among the branches as if to keep in touch with their movements. After a few hundred yards the tracks turned off on a wide game trail. Here Stretch noticed more tracks of the large hoofed animal and small-hoofed tracks; it was like a hallway. The trail turned up a hillside; they must be approaching the ridge again, up to an open slope with boulders and exposed rocks. On the other side were two or three trees that had blown down together and the dead branches lay among the living, piled across one another in all directions, while between and around them sprouted up a thick growth of young evergreens. They paused, and the elder hunter gave a bird call. There were measured answering bird calls. Then they began to stalk again, now very slowly because it was harder to be still on the rocks and to search out the signs. Stretch followed the eyes of the tracker and saw him finding slight scrapes of the large claws on bark and broken twigs. They reentered brush where they went forward slowly, bending branches aside so they would not rustle or catch against their ragged clothes.

As he came around a trunk the tracker froze, then looked back at him, his face aflame with excitement. Stretch leaned over him to see ahead. There, not ten steps off, the bear was slowly rising from his bed among the saplings. He seemed to have heard or smelled them, but hardly knew where or what they were for he towered up on his haunches sideways to them and stretched his head from side to side sniffing and peering. He was larger than Stretch could have imagined, more than three yards standing and bulky. An arrow came from the other side and stuck loosely in his shoulder. He did not seem to notice it and dropped to his four feet, where he stood still as tall as a horse at the shoulder. Stretch shifted his grip on his spear. The tracker quickly unquivering an arrow, notching it, and taking one step away from the tree and two into the little clearing for a clean shot, raising the bow and loosening the arrow while the bear had seen him move and lowered his head running at him while the arrow past just over his head and the grisly momentum of the charge churning Stretch's stomach but not disturbing his attention for less time than it takes to tell and Stretch catching the tracker's eye and, without otherwise moving himself, signaling with his head and eyes that the other should dodge left and he dodging, drawing the charging head and shoulders left with him so the bear came past Stretch turning and he burying the spear in his neck just behind the skull feeling in his shoulders all the fear and anger of these people whose stock was pillaged and bodies torn brought tears to his eyes and brought blood welling from the wound.

The bear roared, stopped, ran back across the little clearing to its bed and threw itself against a tangle of fallen trees almost like a breast work, so thick it fell back. Stretch saw blood running from his mouth. He shouted, "Yes"! and cries echoed from the other hunters. The bear crashed through the clearing on the other side, through some branches, trailing blood and the broken spear. They ran from hiding and after him, the other hunters shouting, while Stretch fell silent again. The bear smashed through the woods, breaking oak limbs as thick as an arm, to another clearing, where he stumbled to the ground, struggled and could not rise. The hunters ran up and stood away with the ravens watching. Stretch came up to them. They embraced, shouted, and cried and waited for the death.